Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-2
Acts 13:1-13; Acts 15:36-41
The last two weeks we explored the life of Barnabas, one of the early Christian church leaders. We found that Barnabas was a person of faith, purpose, advocacy, and vision. His story in the New Testament challenges us to examine our degree of commitment to Christ, our actions to live out our commitment, our focus on being righteousness, and our submission to the teachings of Jesus and to the support of his church. Barnabas had a powerful story that intersected with many early Christians from whom we might learn. One of those individuals was known by three different names. His name was John Mark, also known as John, and other times known as Mark. I would like us to look at this man and see how his life story can impact our faith journey.
John Mark, John, or Mark was known widely in the early church. In the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters to the churches, Mark is never introduced. He is only spoken about suggesting everyone knew Mark. As we will see, this young man was the nephew of Barnabas, he was a confidant of the Apostle Peter, and a fellow missionary with the Apostle Paul. John Mark, John, or Mark as a young boy may have met Jesus. And this man is best known for being credited with leaving us his written legacy in the Gospel of Mark. But I think Mark leaves us an even more important legacy. If we look a little bit harder, I think we will find through Mark’s life a truth about God that we need to here. Namely, God is the God of second chances. We will see the expression of God as a God of second chances through Mark is not a new element of God’s character. We saw second chances given in our Old Testament reading from the life of Jonah and the Ninevites. Let us start by taking a quick look at our reading from the Book of Jonah.
Jonah is a marvelous little book for the Bible and a favorite for storytellers because we have this account of Jonah being swallowed whole by a fish and living within for 3 days and nights. While that is what the story tells us about Jonah, our interest today is to see what the story tells us about God.
We start with Chapter 1, verse 1. “1The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ [Nineveh was in modern day Iraq.] 3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. [Tarshish was in the southern coast of Spain. It was in the exact opposite direction to Nineveh.] He [Jonah] went down to Joppa, where he [Jonah] found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he [Jonah] went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3). We learn something about God right away. God is a God of purpose. God, aware of the great wickedness of the people of Nineveh, sought to warn the people that he would not tolerate their sinfulness. He called on Jonah, a Hebrew, to speak this warning to Jonah. Upon hearing God’s command to preach against the people of Nineveh, Jonah was gripped with powerful emotions. Jonah was fine preaching to the Hebrew people but not Nineveh, they were pagans. Other Hebrews would see Jonah preaching to the Ninevites as a betrayal of them. To preach to the Ninevites was dangerous. Jonah feared the Ninevites because they were wicked people who could put Jonah to death. Jonah also feared the Ninevites might repent and God would save them. Fear gripped Jonah and thinking impulsively, Jonah decided to run away from home and from God. So, Jonah ran in the opposite direction from God’s purpose for his life, perhaps hoping that in a distant land he would no longer be troubled by his fears. Jonah fled with a profound sense that he had failed God.
Think about hearing those words, “You are a failure.” Those words are a punch in the gut that can knock the wind out of you. There is no love or compassion in those words; there is only judgment. “You are a failure,” are words that depress us and immobilize us. Those words are hurtful when said to us and even worse when we say those words to ourselves. Have you ever failed at something? I am sure you have. It is painful. To a believer in God, what could be worse than failing God? To whom can you reach out to help you if it is God whom you have failed?
In Chapter 1 of Jonah, we find that as Jonah was making his escape from God, a storm raged on the sea. Jonah told the crew that God caused the storm because God was angry at Jonah and to save themselves, they must through Jonah into the sea. The crew threw Jonah overboard and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish. In Chapter 2, Jonah, now inside the fish and stripped of everything in life, did the only thing he could do. Jonah prayed to God. Isn’t that so true of us as well? For the most part, we do what we want to do, when we want to do it, and how we want to do it. Then when circumstances fall upon us and we can no longer exercise our freedom of choice, we pray to God to save us. Jonah prayed for God’s salvation. We read at the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3, “10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it [the fish] vomited Jonah onto dry land. 1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’” (Jonah 2:10; 3:1-2). God had given Jonah a second chance at life and renewed purpose. This is a good physical representation of salvation. Salvation is a second chance at life and a renewed sense of purpose. Past failures no longer have hold over us.
As we read further, we would find that Jonah obeyed God and preached to the Ninevites about their wickedness. The Ninevites repented. Chapter 3, verse 10 records God’s reaction, “10 When God saw what they [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he [God] relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). God granted the Ninevites a second chance. But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:1-2). Jonah knew God was a God of second chances and Jonah feared God would give one to the undeserving Ninevites. I think Jonah’s reaction points out that personally we want second chances, for ourselves, but we are not always so desirous to see others, you know those undeserving people, receive a second chance. We need to keep in mind that we are all someone else’s example of an undeserving person. Thankfully, God believes in second chances not because we deserve a second chance but because in granting the grace of a second chance God can display his love for us.
How does the idea of second chances come into play with our friend John Mark, John, or Mark? Let us see. Church history tells us that as a young man, Mark, was present when Jesus was arrested. After Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, the apostles ran away. Then soldiers and Temple officials led Jesus back to the city of Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark included a curious remark. “51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they [the soldiers] seized him [the young man], 52 he [the young man] fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mark 14:51-52). Church history tells us that young man was Mark. He was following Jesus in the sense that he was there to assist Jesus or accompany him and receive instruction. Apparently, Mark’s presence was a distraction to the Temple officials and soldiers, and they sought to take him into custody. Mark slipped through their grasp and fled naked into the night. So, Mark likely had been in the company of Jesus.
We next encounter Mark in the Book of Acts. By this time, Jesus has been resurrected and ascended into heaven. In Jerusalem, the Apostle Peter had been preaching about the resurrected Christ. Peter’s preaching did not sit well with the city officials and so they put Peter in jail. Then one night an angel freed Peter from prison. Peter, at first unsure where to go now that he was out of prison, remembered some dear friends. So, Peter “went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying” (Acts 12:12). So, Mark was in the company of Peter.
Soon after Peter’s release prison, we find that Barnabas and Saul (later known as Paul) were in Jerusalem making ready to return to their work at the church in Antioch. The Book of Acts, Chapter 12, verse 25, tells us Barnabas and Saul took with them [to Antioch] John, also called Mark. So, Mark was in the company of Barnabas and Saul.
From our New Testament reading today in Chapter 13 of the Book of Acts, verse 2, we learn that in Antioch, “While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they [the church members] placed their hands on them [Barnabas and Saul] and sent them off. 4 The two of them [Barnabas and Saul], sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John [also known as Mark] was with them as their helper” (Acts 13:2-5). Mark was part of the missionary journey to the island of Cyprus specifically to bring the good news to the Jewish people on that island. The NIV says Mark was a helper or assistant to Barnabas and Saul. The context of the Greek word for helper here is that Mark was likely responsible for preserving and carrying documents used to support the ministry. Some historians speculate, Mark was carrying with him an early account or compilation of sayings and stories of Jesus. Mark was a key member of this missionary team and was becoming familiar with ways of expressing Jesus’ story in writing.
Then something curious happened. While on Cyprus, the Roman governor, a man named Serguis Paulus, wanted to hear from Barnabas and Saul. A Jewish man, Elymas, a magician of sorts, tried to stop Paulus from believing in Jesus. The Holy Spirit, working through Saul, blinded Elymas. “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (Acts 13:12). The Roman governor, a Gentile, received a second chance from God.
After this event with the Roman governor, we read an important verse about Mark. “13 From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John [also known as Mark] left them [Paul and Barnabas] to return to Jerusalem” (Acts 14:13). First thing we notice is Saul’s name, a Jewish name, is changed to Paul, a Greek name. Second, the writer of Acts changes the description of who was present from Barnabas and Saul to “Paul and his companions.” Third, after the conversion of the Roman governor, Paul began a significant outreach to the Gentiles. Following these changes, John [also known as Mark], left the group to return to Jerusalem. We are not told why. Perhaps, Mark did not like Paul becoming the leader replacing Barnabas. Afterall, we learn that Barnabas was Mark’s uncle. Perhaps, Mark did not like the idea of a mission to the Gentiles. Why should the Gentile’s receive a second chance? We do not know what caused Mark to return home. We only know that he did, and we discover later that Mark’s leaving was deeply wounding to Paul.
The mission trip of Paul and Barnabas continued and time passed. Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to continue the work of that church. We then read in Chapter 15 of the Book of Acts, “36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he [Mark] had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They [Paul and Barnabas] had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance. Paul refused to give Mark a second chance believing Mark was a deserter. The sense of desertion is not that Mark ran out of energy for the journey. The sense is Mark actively, consciously, and purposely withdrew from the mission. Paul seems to believe once you fail, you are done.
I find Paul’s reaction ironic. The entire message of the Gospel is God is a God of second chances. The Gospel is the good news that we can be a new creation in Christ regardless of our past. And Paul who so strongly preached this message said no second chance for Mark. It is also interesting that the answer “No,” would come from Paul who persecuted the church and was given a second chance by God. But Barnabas stood beside Mark and did not waiver in giving Mark a second chance.
Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus. Mark received his second chance. Church history suggests that in Cyprus, Barnabas once again encountered a Jewish magician or sorcerer. Only this time, the sorcerer stirred up a crowd against Barnabas. The mob threw a rope around Barnabas, dragged him from the city, and burned him. Mark escaped this scene of his uncle’s death. Mark continued in ministry and mission with Peter. Mark became Peter’s assistant writing the account of Jesus ministry we now have in the Gospel of Mark. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter describes Mark as his spiritual son. Mark would rejoin Paul in his ministry. It appears that Mark gave Paul a second chance for their relationship. With Paul, we find that while Paul was imprisoned, Mark ministered to Paul. In the short letter of Philemon, we read Paul closed his letter by writing, “23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 23-24). Further, we would read in Paul’s letter to the Colossians these words, “10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him)” (Colossians 4:10). And finally, Paul wrote to Timothy, Paul’s spiritual son, these words, “11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
Weaving throughout the Bible stories we explored today is the reality that God is the God of second chances. Jonah experienced a second chance as did the Ninevites. Mark experienced second chances, as did Barnabas, Paul, and a Roman governor. Barnabas extended a second chance to Mark and even though Paul refused to give Mark a second chance, Mark gave Paul a second chance.
I think the personal and enduring message of Mark’s life may well be that we would understand that God is the God of second chances. We understand that no mistake is too big to disqualify us from God. No failure is beyond the forgiveness of God.
God wants to give you a second chance to become a new creation in Christ. This second chance is called salvation. God offers us that second chance not because we deserve it. He offers it as a gift and as an expression of who He is. You can refuse God’s gift but why would you? What is to be gained in refusing a gift from God? Those who accept God’s gift in Christ are people of second chances. We who have received are expected to take on the character of the gift we received. As such, we must ask ourselves who in my life needs a second chance from me? Think about it for a moment. Who needs a second chance from you, not because they deserve it, but because you have Christ in you and the power to offer someone the gift of a second chance? Think about it. Pray about it. Then do something about it. Amen and Amen.